As part of Testudo Times' 2013 football coverage, staffer Alex Kirshner is corresponding with opposing teams' beat writers and SB Nation bloggers for each week on the Terrapins' schedule. This week, we check in with Paul Wiley of Streaking the Lawn, SB Nation's Virginia Cavaliers site.
TT: Not that Maryland's thrashing at the hands of Florida State was much to write home about, but I can't imagine you were pleased to be destroyed at home by Ball State last weekend, either. Aside from "everything," what went wrong for the Cavaliers that day?
PW: Penalties and turnovers. We had two really big scoring plays called back because of penalties, two of the THIRTEEN we committed on the day. Getting a 70+ yard TD pass, to bring the game within three points at the beginning of the fourth quarter, because of an offensive lineman was downfield. 2013 UVa football. Ball State certainly deserves credit for putting on an offensive clinic. But I think most Virginia fans see the game as one we lost, or at the very least one that we let Ball State win.
TT: Virginia's offense has scored more than 16 points just twice this season. Have they played especially tough defenses, or is this offense completely non-functional?
PW: Yes. To both parts. BYU and Oregon have really good defenses. But Pitt and Ball State don't. VMI doesn't count because lolVMI. So far, we've proven almost totally incapable of getting the ball downfield and using the big play to balance the running attack. This presents sort of a chicken-egg problem: Does the run game not work because the safeties don't have to defend deep, or does the pass game not work because there's no run game to worry about? RB Kevin Parks turned in a solid performance against Ball State and the offensive line generally seemed to do a good job opening up holes; 5.8 yards per carry is a good day. But 5.3 yards per PASS is not a good day. You're going to see a lot of quick hit patterns—screens and curls—but not a lot that have the receivers momentum going downfield. The debate rages among Wahoo faithful about whether the problem is play-calling or execution, but no one is arguing that there isn't a problem.
TT: Tell me about the Cavs' defense. They've been crushed a few times, but they've had a few very productive games with low point totals for the other side. Is this a strong unit? Who are the most talented players?
PW: Getting "crushed" by Oregon's offense isn't anything to hang one's head about. Getting smoked by an above-average MAC squad: that's cause for concern. The defense had been pretty much the lone bright spot through the first four games of the year. Eli Harold off the edge has played like an all-conference DE. Safety Anthony Harris has improved by leaps and bounds over last season, making big plays in run support and the pass game. DT Brent Urban is our version of JJ Watt: he's knocked down 8 passes, which is the most of any player in the ACC (not just defensive linemen—EVERYBODY). True freshman Max Valles has converted to OLB from TE and provided even more speed off the edge. Combining a lot of talented athletes with Jon Tenuta's aggressive style has produced the 15th best defense in the country, according to Football Outsider's Defensive S&P.
TT: UVA quarterback David Watford's numbers are not pretty, particularly his 3-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But Maryland's injured secondary proved how vulnerable it can be last weekend. Watford isn't Jameis Winston, but does he have the talent -- and the weapons -- to deliver against the Terps?
PW: Watford hasn't made the best decisions at many points so far. But this goes back to the play-calling vs. execution debate I mentioned above. The fact that we haven't put the ball downfield could be a consequence of play design; it could be a consequence of Watford's decision-making; it could be a consequence of Watford not having enough time to look downfield; or it could be a consequence of our WRs and TEs dropping passes. Against Pitt, 10 of Watford's incompletions were off of dropped balls. Not every throw was Elway-esque, but far too many of them were catches the receiver absolutely should have made. That performance led to a serious shakeup among the receiving corps. Juniors Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennings—both of whom were high school QBs—saw their playing time reduced in favor of some of the pure WRs on the roster. Freshman Keeon Johnson gave Watford a 6'3, 210-pound target to look for, and hauled in three passes for first downs (plus one of the negated TDs). Senior WR Tim Smith seemed to break through some of his butterfingers issues. If the receiving end of the ball continues to get better, Watford will have nowhere to hide and no one to blame if the passing side doesn't improve. But Watford's combo of athleticism, speed and arm strength should give fits to thinner, less experienced defensive backfields.
TT: The Terrapins were obliterated in the trenches in Tallahassee, but their lines had done pretty well up to that point. Will Virginia's offensive line create be able to create space for runners like Kevin Parks? And on the other side of the ball, can the Cavs' front seven put consistent pressure on C.J. Brown (or whoever is quarterbacking the Terps)?
PW: This offensive line has been an enigma. Man-mountain Morgan Moses has been hailed as a top NFL prospect, but at times looks like a swinging gate on the edge. The interior has been a shambles, with no player really emerging as a go-to blocker from center out to right tackle. Just like the WRs got shaken up after the Pitt game—in which Pitt's Aaron Donald just embarrassed the interior OL—so too did the offensive line. Freshmen Eric Smith and Eric Tetlow both started. Sophomore Jay Whitmire returns from an injury this week and should help shore up the inside at LG. The unit did its job last week, springing Parks and Khalek Shepherd for some big gains. On the flip side, the defensive line is really the strength of the defense, which is in turn the strength of the team. But getting pressure is key. UVa managed only one sack against Ball State, and look how that turned out. This unit damn well ought to get pressure in Maryland's backfield, and the game may well turn on whether or not they can.
TT: Could you assess the Cavs' special teams play -- kicking, punting, returning and coverage?
PW: No. SB Nation has language guidelines that prevent me from adequately or accurately expressing my opinions regarding UVa's special teams play. I will say that it's better than last year, but that's nothing more than a statistical truism: it would be quite difficult to have been worse than last year's 123rd-ranked special teams unit. The coverage unit is porous. The return unit is worse; they haven't seemed to figure out that bringing the ball out to the 20 is less productive than just taking the dang touchback. (Best of all worlds: giving up the touchback, bringing the ball out, and fumbling it. We've done that a time or two.) The bright spot is Alec Vozenilek. He started the season as just the punter, and shined in that respect; so far he's averaging over 42 yards a punt, including a 77-yarder against Pitt. He started taking on kicking duties as well and is 2/2 on field goal attempts. Dylan Sims has been handling the kickoffs while Ian Frye is hurt; Sims has recorded three touchbacks on his eight kickoffs.
TT: Last of all, what's your game prediction? Why?
PW: I want nothing more than to beat Maryland in the last time we face y'all. I want to leave College Park for the last time ever with a W. I want that; I want it bad. But I don't think it will happen. This UVa squad is just too inconsistent. We've yet to put together four quarters of really good football. We've HAD four really good quarters, just strung out over five games. Until we stop the mental mistakes and start executing with some precision, we're going to struggle against every team, much less good ones. And Maryland is [shudder, hates self] a pretty good football team this year. I think the defense comes out with a chip on its shoulder after last game, but can't overcome another shoddy offensive performance and a few crucial turnovers. Maryland 17, Virginia 10.